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Campus Currents

What's that you're reading? Metamorphosis and Identity

We asked Arthur Greenberg, dean of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, what's on his nightstand. He says: "It's Metamorphosis and Identity, by Caroline Walker Bynum (published by Zone Books, New York, 2000). A Columbia University historian, Bynum posits that in a brief period near the end of the 12th-century, European ideas about radical change themselves underwent radical change. She contrasts the ancient story of the sudden, cataclysmic conversion of Saul, persecutor of Christians, to Paul, disciple of Christ, on the road to Damascus with the 12th-century version of the story, which told of a slow, reasoned conversion. But characteristics are often retained during metamorphosis--King Lycaon is transformed into a wolf by Jove because that was his innate nature. Medieval alchemists believed that lead could be transmuted into gold, but, like Lycaon, both metals would retain their 'essences,' in this case the essence of metallicity. For a 12th-century alchemist, an alloy such as white gold (a combination of the metals gold and palladium) was a kind of metallic werewolf--fascinating insights into the 12th-century mind for this modern chemist."

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